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New Year’s Resolutions: Eliminate, Enhance, Explore

Avoiding the guilt of resolutions by honoring the challenge instead of the goal

January 5, 2014

Photo of scrabble tiles spelling out Happy New Year

Laura B. McGrath is a PhD student in English at Michigan State University. She tweets at@lbmcgrath and blogs atEmerging Modernisms.

Happy New Year, GradHackers!

It’s my first day back at my writing desk since my Holiday Hiatus, and I’m thinking a lot about what I want from 2014: what I want to achieve, how I want to work better and smarter, and what I need to do in order to be successful personally and professionally. I’m sure many of you are beginning 2014 with similar resolve: I salute you.

I’m a real sucker for resolutions. I make them every New Year, of course, but I also make them at the beginning of each semester. Resolutions give me a sense of purpose; they help me feel like I have some control over this crazy life, like I still have the power to shape who I am amidst the cult of grad school. And there’s something cathartic in saying it out loud: THIS is what I want, or THIS is what I needAnd I’m going to make it happen. Cue Wonder Woman theme song.

But it seems that New Year’s resolutions may be falling the way of bygone New Year’s traditions, such as pork-over-poultry“First-Footing,” or, my childhood favorite, banging pots and pans until my eardrums felt fit to burst. Resolutions, most commonly about physical or emotional change, are hard to keep. A study from the University of Scranton suggests that only 8% of Americans are actually successful in keeping their resolutions. Failed resolutions often leave us feeling poorly about ourselves; what began as a quest for self-improvement transforms into (yet another) site of guilt.

There are many tactics for developing successful resolutions, such as setting SMART Goals, asking for varying degrees of accountability, or hacking the psychology of habit-forming. These tactics are all useful, each in their own right; I’ve tried them all over the years. But the one caveat, on which I will insist, is that would-be-resolvers avoid guilt. We’re grad students; we’ve got enough guilt. To that end, I offer to you three suggestions for creating New Year’s Resolutions.

1.    Eliminate.

Start with getting rid of the clutter. If you’re like me, the commitments pile up faster than you can blink. You serve on committees, you guest lecture in a class, you offer to proofread a paper—all on top of taking classes, writing your dissertation, teaching, and attempting to maintain some semblance of healthy relationships with friends and family. Even when I want to try something new, or change my behavior, I find that I have no time left to do it. So before you try something new, scale down. Make room to breathe. Enjoy the space.

My “Eliminate” Resolution: I resolve to stop working at 8 pm each night, and to take Sundays off.

2.    Enhance.

What are you really good at? Resolve to keep doing it, but better. When are you at your best? Don’t set impossible goals for yourself, but recognize the areas in your life in which you’re already succeeding. Figure out how you can enhance those areas of your life. Are you great at writing in short increments? Try developing a daily writing routine. Are you already disciplined about writing daily? Consider adding 500 words to your daily count, or investing in a new software program to improve that experience. Are you at your best when you get a full 8-hour sleep? Try going to bed earlier, or drinking less caffeine in order to sleep better. Make a skill into a habit. The principle is the same: play to your strengths.

My “Enhance” Resolution: I am at my best, my sharpest, my happiest, when I allow myself to be creative. I’m going to play the piano, I’m going to sing, I’m going to write poetry; I resolve to create space for imagination and artistry in my life.

3.    Explore.

Try something new. Take a risk. Give yourself the freedom. This doesn’t need to be a big goal; you don’t need to master a new language, or learn to play an instrument, or travel the world. Exploration does not require commitment. To explore is to seek, to investigate, to try.

The most common resolutions are to lose weight, to save more/spend less, and to get organized. Each of these things is final: you do or don’t lose weight, you are or aren’t organized, you do or you don’t save. I think this is a guilt-inciting mistake. Instead of setting an all-or-nothing goal, resolve to give something a try. If it works for you, then you can choose to incorporate it into your life.

Last year, I resolved to “move around the classroom” more frequently. I thought that this would help me connect with my students, provide a more engaging educational environment, and help me curb frustrating technology use.

I tried it. It was weird.

I felt uncomfortable, students felt uncomfortable, and I quickly returned to my position at the front of the classroom. I don’t feel bad about opting out of this resolution: I gave it a shot, it didn’t work for me, I moved on. Ultimately, I consider this a success in the spirit of the resolution, if not the letter: I learned something about myself as a teacher, and trying, at least, set me on the path to improvement.

For many of us, even small amounts of change can be overwhelming; resolving to try honors the challenge rather than the goal. And, really, isn’t that the point of Resolutions?

My “Explore” Resolution(s), of varying importance: I resolve to revise an article for publication, and I resolve to train for a marathon. I may not be successful in these endeavors (I hope I will be), but I resolve to try.  

What are your New Year’s resolutions? What’s something you want to eliminate from your life? What would you like to enhance? What would you like to explore? Tweet your resolutions @GradHacker, using #GHresolve.

[Image by Flickr user Sally Mahoney used under creative commons licensing.]


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